Friday, May 12, 2006


Sam Bahour - Why Palestinian Strife is escalating

Recent Palestinian infighting is a dangerous development, one that has the entire region on edge. Armed confrontations in the street have been mirrored by escalating disagreements between politicians, most notably Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, over control of security agencies.

Through nearly four decades of continuous Israeli military occupation, which dominates every aspect of life, Palestinians have miraculously held together. Today, many are asking if they can withstand the unrelenting external pressures, coupled with an increasingly complicated domestic political makeup. The infighting stems from the dramatic change in government following the January elections when the Islamic party, Hamas, defeated the historically dominant secular party, Fatah. For the first time in modern Arab politics, the political majority and minority traded places peacefully. This should be applauded.

However, without a sovereign framework to grow within, it is unclear whether this episode is a one-time event or a prelude to a full-fledged democracy. Palestinian civil service was built by and for Fatah and is not a nonpartisan bureaucracy serving the public interest. This is especially so of the nearly 73,000 members of the security forces. Many were former Fatah activists rewarded for their loyalty with their current jobs. Corruption and inefficiency were rife in the Palestinian Authority, and contributed to Hamas' electoral victory.

Another cause of the infighting is economic deterioration. Israeli actions - sudden closure of the borders to labor and trade, drastic restrictions on movement, and destruction of capital and assets - are the main cause of this deterioration, according to Nigel Roberts, former World Bank country director for the occupied Palestinian territory. Roberts says these measures "led to an enormous loss of income... something like 40 percent of personal real incomes was lost in the course of [a] two-year period."

Israel also refuses to turn over $50 million a month in taxes it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority as required under the Oslo accords. Increasingly needy Palestinians are demanding that the Palestinian Authority deliver government salaries and basic services, regardless of who is in power.

The police force has demonstrated publicly for its salaries, while other government employees say they are unable to afford transportation to work. Palestinian hospitals are running so low on basic medicines and supplies that some say they may have to close their doors. Domestic crime, historically unheard of in Palestinian territories, is on the rise. Store owners report customers wanting to pawn their belongings to put food on the table.

Neighborhood shopkeepers, who regularly provided customers with lines of credit, have mostly stopped this age-old practice. Palestinians recognize that they are caught between a rock and a hard place. They elected Hamas to oust a corrupt government and after years of a "peace process" that only made their lives worse, with the dramatic expansion of Jewish-only settlements and roads on their land.

Now, they are being punished by the international community that prefers the old corrupt government. On May 2, Palestinian private sector associations and business leaders met with Abbas and Hamas representatives to recommend the formation of a unity government of apolitical technocrats. It remains to be seen if this will be pursued. This private sector intervention is unprecedented and illustrates the severity of the crisis. Palestinians, like all people, just want to be able to put food on the table, educate their children, and live in security. They cannot do so without repairing these new internal rifts and without the support of the international community. They also cannot do so without freedom from Israel's military occupation. When pushed to the wall, they will not sacrifice one for the other.

The Hamas government may not survive the international pressure against it. That does not mean, however, that support for Hamas will diminish, especially as Palestinians enter their 40th year of occupation. In fact, the lesson that Palestinians - and others around the world - may draw is that democracy does not bring justice and real peace. That is not a conclusion we want anyone to draw.

Sam Bahour is a Palestinian American businessman living in the West Bank
Sam Bahour is one of the editors of "Homeland: Oral Histories of Palestine and the Palestinians."


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